Thoughts on a mobile phone enhanced intranet

I have been thinking about the concept of mobile and intranet since I got my first iPhone two years ago and I started to use it to access the internet. (My previous phones did have the capability for internet and web access, but it was not implemented well at all, due to bad browsers etc…) But what about the mobile phone and the intranet?

Note: The mobile phones I’m referring to here are phones that have the same capabilities as recent iPhones, Androids, WP7 etc. Desktop = a desktop computer with a web browser.

My dear colleague Kristoffer Olin pitched the idea of an “iPhone-like” intranet to me more than a year ago. And it’s a very good idea. But not in the way I first imagined it…

In December of 2010 James Robertson published a a very good post “What six things do staff want on their mobile devices?“. But I thought there was something missing…

2011 started and one of the first things that happened was the publishing of the annual Norman Nielsen Groups report “Intranet Design Annual 2011: Year’s 10 Best Intranets“. The report highlighted the fact that 60% of the winners had a mobile intranet. Of course users should be able to access and use the intranet with a mobile. Quite obvious, so there should be something more…

And RWW pointed out that one of the winners even had an iPhone app. Ahh, the app store experience a very good way to distribute intranet functionality to the users. Almost there, still something missing…

Then I started to realise. In order to really unleash the potential of accessing and using the intranet on a mobile phone, it really would have to be more than (just) a mobile version of the current (content based) intranet. That is just the first step and should be considered an absolute minimum in terms of user/business needs…

What’s really interesting is to use all that extra functionality available for those that use a mobile phone. Since a mobile phone has a lot more sensors than the desktop computer, why not use them? We now have an Internet of things. So what I’m thinking is an intranet of things… I’m thinking about stuff like location based services and information, push notifications, alerts, live video, augmented reality, etc.

Of course it could be a problem if the user interfaces (UI) between the desktop, mobile and tablet versions of the intranet are very different.

This is what I think a mobile enhanced intranet would be like:

User interface

A user interface for the intranet should be straight-to-the-point. No fuzz, just give me what I want and then I’ll go on with my work. The UI needs to feel familiar, so there should be many design elements shared between the desktop/mobile/tablet versions of the intranet. A version of the intranet only means that different stylesheets (or themes) are applied to enable access to an optimized version for each device type.

HTML5

Naturally a user interface for a mobile intranet should be built on HTML5. One day, when all archaic browsers like IE6. IE7 and IE8 etc. are extinct, then the desktop browser based intranet also can take advantage of all the useful stuff that comes with HTML5. It is possible to build practically every application in HTML5 instead of making apps. W3C has already published Mobile Web Applications Best Practice. If the intranet applications are built with HTML5, the users can use the intranet with any recent mobile phone with a good browser.

By starting to use HTML5 for the mobile intranet, It is possible to re-use applications built for the mobile on the desktop. It is important to learn how to best leverage the possibilities that come with HTML5. A big step towards the intranet as the way of working (aka the digital workplace)…

App-like

App stores seems to be successful because they are easy to use. So why not take it to the intranet, but in a much more simple way. Distribution of functions could be as easy as being able to save an app-like icon to your phone (that actually just is a bookmark). That makes it easy to re-access often used functionality. Maybe the desktop version of the intranet should be using the same app store metaphor?

Geo-positioning and location based information

In a recent jboye.com blog post Martin Risgaard talked about his view on location based services(LBS) after using Foursquare. Martin thinks that information based on location is a big thing, but not around the corner. Well, I agree with Martin, but I also do think that location based information (LBI) will happen very soon.

If the idea of checking-in is applied to the intranet [clarification: I actually mean both using geo-positioning and the authenticated check-in when using the term in the text below]; it could be used for getting important information related to current location. For example giving directions to meeting room, information about vacant parking lots nearby, the menu at the cafeteria, “the elevator is closed for maintenance , please take the stairs”, There is a lot of information that is based on location. We could also give the user information related to future locations. If for example calender booking has the information where the next meeting is located, then why not send push notification that gives directions if the user never has checked-in there before?

If the users check-in (LBS) then all sorts of tips by other users could be displayed. What’s nearby? Are there any copiers nearby? Where are the toilets? Is there an empty desk I could use nearby, before the next meeting? This is of course based on the fact that the people that ordinarily occupies the desk are somewhere else according to their calendars…

[Added 2011-01-13] Here’s an example of an implementation from EPFL (thanks to @ernstdecsey for the link) for what is described above. Very cool. There’s truth in the phrase: “…there’s an app for that”.

Of course the check-in could be used to look for colleagues nearby or even find expertise, via the corporate directory, that are nearby… There are endless possibilities for making working life a little bit easier with the help of location based information.

Push notifications and alerts

Important information at the right time and the right position. Imagine what happens if we combine time and location based information and push notifications? For example if leaving work later than usual, users could be reminded of the fact that; the alarm will automatically be set in 15 minutes, or that the back entrance is closed after 18.00 – use the main entrance when leaving the building. Or, today the water is shut off between 10.30 and 11.00 for maintenance.

Another scenario. IT could alert users that a certain system is down and when it is expected to be working again. Or that the Wi-fi or network is down (remember we are using a mobile here). In case of emergencies push notifications of course can be really useful.

Also, very important organisational news can be pushed to most users at the same time, even if not sitting at the desk or even at work. So everyone feels equally informed.

Images and scanning

Another very interesting thing is the use of the built in camera to identify objects via their barcode or their shape and size. Already used for shopping, this could also be very useful at work. All kinds of stuff have barcodes, if scanned via a mobile phone, the barcode can be used for looking up and comparing prices in a shop before deciding to make a purchase. But what if we attached QR Codes or barcodes to, for example, printers? Instead of looking up the price, why not link to a basic user manual? Or scan the QR Code for easier reporting, when telling the office support that a specific printer is broken? The QR Codes can also be used when ordering new office supplies.

Help people remember important information by adding QR Codes to all documents, so that they can scan the QR Code and “bookmark” it. This is good for remembering a URL, a document name and it’s contents or any other piece of information. Add it to business cards for easy import to the mobile phones address book.

When introducing new hires to the workplace, why not make them check-in at places, scan barcodes etc. just to make them do the stuff that is good to know when newly hired…

Live video

Many mobiles also have decent video cameras. Wouldn’t it be great if IT support could have a live stream, showing them what kind of problems the user wants them to help her with? Again, many help desks use remote desktoping, but that only works if the network is working properly… Live streams seems very useful for help desk issues. Why not get the immediate reactions of colleagues to a presentation made by someone, live? Or get the help of colleagues and they actually can see what the problem is through the live video stream.

Authentication and NFC

Mobile phones are also excellent for providing secure access to systems. The mobile could be used for providing two factor authentication. With Near Field Communication (NFC) technology starting to be added into mobiles, then it could easily be used for opening doors (if there is such a system in place). NFC could also be used for internal billing purposes.

Conclusion

Phew, that was some of the possibilities I see for a mobile phone enhanced intranet. Many of them might not be right for your intranet, or they have no business value, or they are too expensive to develop etc. Remember that these were my thoughts on the mobile phone enhanced intranet.

Nothing of what I have described in this post is something we have where I work. The foundation for it is there, a lot of the plumbing is in place. It’s just a matter of building it then…

As always I really, really appreciate your thoughts, feedback, comments, tweets. If you have done, or you know someone who has done, some of the things described in this post. I will be very happy to update the blog post with that information.

Links to other good posts on mobile intranets:

Intranets: time to think differently and Develop your intranet in a week by Jonathan Phillips

Comments

  1. Reply

    Another good use case is for emergency operations, where using your mobile Intranet Ap. you can take a snapshot of the situation, position yourself through geolocation, see if any other organization is acting in the neighborhood, send an image of the situation to your followers for them to immediately assess the situation or be prepared to deliver the necessary equipment… There are many other use cases and Intranets (or digital workplace) will go mobile, I guess it’s just a question of time.

    • Reply

      Good use case Ernst! I think mobiles will be very useful in the field. Especially for emergency operations, accidents etc. As you mention, it is just a question of time before we see some very innovative uses of mobiles.

    • Reply

      Good use case Ernst! I think mobiles will be very useful in the field. Especially for emergency operations, accidents etc. As you mention, it is just a question of time before we will see some very innovative uses of
      mobiles.

  2. Reply

    Great post Kristian! I think you are touching on some of the important use cases for mobile intranet.

    I may be wrong about the location based information, but in my opinion you need to get people used to the mobile intranet through more traditional services which brings immediate value and is a more logical “extension” of the traditional intranet use.

    The main barrier for check-in services is the notion of Big Brother watching and in a corporate context I think this is amplified. I’m certain that this will change over time – I just don’t think that it will happen quickly and it will not be the catalyst for the mobile intranet.

    • Reply

      Well argued comments Martin. I think you are right about location based services (LBS) and especially regarding check-ins. I think we only might disagree on the point in time when location based information (LBI) will happen. For example: we add geo-coordinates to a lot of information where I work, so for us it is just a matter of developing the application. Of course that is not something done in an afternoon…

      I guess I wasn’t clear enough in my post about that. Have to re-read my own post and maybe clarify à bit.

      • Reply

        LBS and LBI – a very important distinction. LBS require that some kind of (personal) information is transmitted (if nothing else, the location of a mobile device owned by someone), whereas LBI is an additional type of meta-data that hasn’t been relevant until now.

      • Reply

        I have added a clarification regarding the use of the term check-in in the post.

        It”s quite clear that what is written isn’t always the same that was intended and clearly not the same as thought out.

    • Reply

      Agree with you Martin. LBI/LBS aren’t going to be the mobile intranet features you throw at your users in the first instant. Although there are, potentially, some very clever and exciting applications ahead for us in that area – as Kristian shows.

      I don’t think though that you need to stick to “traditional” services to get the ball rolling – a number of Kristian’s ideas above could be likely to gain adoption as they offer a clear and easily understood benefit to the employee.

      Ordering a new toner cartridge by scanning a code is a good, practical, example of something simple (from the user’s perspective) and useful – even in an office environment where everyone is by and large desk-bound.

  3. Reply

    I agree in full, Kristian – a mobile enabled intranet would make so much more sense than the often seen static Sharepoint site with nothing more that todays canteen menu and most updated address book to offer. Let me suggest some more features to your list:
    * Streaming presentations to a projector or TV directly from your phone/pad, a la AirPlay (http://www.apple.com/ipad/features/airplay.html). Lighter meetings = quicker meetings.
    * Using the phone instead of keys, to open doors and activate/deactivate alarms etc.
    * Creating collaborate spaces: detect who’s in a meeting, connect them and set up common streams and information sources based on their physical location

    But as much as I love the idea, I can see problems when discussing security with the IT department. I suspect a mobile enabled internal information source would raise the question on lack of access control, possible leakage etc. Strange though, as phones are often used to ensure a better security, like you mention. But never the less an obstacle that have to be addressed in most organisations, don’t you think?

    Personally I still dream of an ‘IntraLog’, where all internal information is streamed to me as it happens, with the possibility of promoting/demoting information relevant to me. This is to be seen in a context where the actual intraNET often consists of a billion different sources of information, to be aggregated by the local search platform. That scenario would really play out excellently on a mobile device. Combine that with more social collaboration and the value of the intranet as a tool would increase immensely. Do you have any experience with something like that, Kristian, based on the information distribution you seem to have implemented at Region Västra Götaland?

    • Reply

      Here are my thoughts in relation to your comments (by the way, very good ones too).

      The features you describe makes perfect sense, and seems a natural next step after the infrastructure (the mobile devices +some software) is in place.

      And as you say, the phone could be used as keys, or as one would maybe use today, special cards. To open doors, get physical access to stuff in lockers, or to handle the alarm. Come to think of it, why not put the lights on or out if no one (or actually no mobile devices) is in a room anymore?

      Since a phone could be used as a security device in itself (and one that would be missed very soon if lost) I can’t see why “IT” would see them as a threat? A key or card that is lost surely wouldn’t be missed as soon as a missing mobile phone? I think security should be be looked at separately from the device. Security is so much more than a device, security is foremost a cultural/organizational thing, more than anything.

      A mobile device is, as you describe it, excellent for receiving and transmitting signals (by signals I mean data/information) based on your preferences, space (location) and time. I think that any real-time system for distribution and aggregation of information used together with mobile devices that act as an filter (based on time, space and your personal preferences) coupled with social (trustbased) filtering of information is where the intranets are heading. That is something that would be very interesting to explore in the future…

      • Reply

        Good point about the missing phone. In fact, its location could even be tracked immediately – a “win-win” type situation. =)

        After having tried Google-Goggles sudoku-solving possibilities yesterday (nerdy, but wonderfully cool), I am convinced that a mobile internet-connected device could do tons as an internal tool. Thanks for the inspiration, Kristian! Now I have to go print some QR codes to see meeting room schedules…

  4. Reply

    A inspiring example on this subject
    EPFL launches its application for smartphones: the Pocket Campus
    http://actu.epfl.ch/news/lepfl-sort-son-application-pour-smartphones-le-poc/

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